It’s been four decades since Paul Saltzman got punched in the head by a Klansman in Mississippi. Before he made his name as a photographer with the Beatles in India, before his career as a director and producer, the young Torontonian spent three months on the storied voter registration drive in the turbulent American South. He went back in 2006 on a personal journey, as he puts it, ‘just to see.’ He came back with not one but two films, the first of which makes its world premiere in the World Documentary Competition at Sundance 2009.
Like America itself, with Barack Obama taking office during the festival, Prom Night in Mississippi is far removed from the bitter race hatred Saltzman witnessed. But the vestiges of division remain and they are not subliminal.
Seeing this, Saltzman acted on his initial impulse, to make a film about his return to Mississippi, but ended up — thanks to a fortuitous connection established by his local production assistant — documenting a more immediate story, that of a small town Mississippi high school that, on April 19, 2008, held its first-ever integrated prom.
The notion seems incredible — always a good starting point for a documentary — but Saltzman was himself lucky to have a relationship with Morgan Freeman, the demi-god of African American actors, who had lately returned to his Mississippi roots.
Freeman, it turns out, had, years before, offered to finance the entire cost of an integrated prom at Charleston High, in Charleston, Mississippi. But no one took him up on the offer. This time around, says Saltzman, ‘Morgan agreed to renew the offer to pay for the integrated prom and the school agreed to let me film.’ Saltzman and his wife Patricia Aquino, who makes her debut as his co-producer, financed the filming themselves.
‘At one point as we were landing in Memphis to start shooting, I had this flow of warmth and I thought, ‘We’re doing more civil rights work,” he says.
When he and editors Kevin Schjerning and Stephen Philipson had an assembly, Saltzman called his pal Daniel Weinzweig, the former distribution executive, who in turn called Ira Deutchman of New York-based distribution company Emerging Pictures.
‘We met at TIFF this September,’ says Saltzman. ‘We showed Ira about 40 minutes of material and he gave us some suggestions. He wanted to see more. When we finished the rough cut he said, ‘No one has ever listened to all my suggestions.” He suggested they submit to Sundance. They also screened the rough cut at two Toronto high schools, including C.W. Jeffreys, where a student was murdered in the halls in May of 2007.
Saltzman’s other more personal, more historical film, Return To Mississippi, also features Freeman as well as interviews with Harry Belafonte, the Jamaican American singer-actor who financed the Freedom Rides and the voter registration drives. ‘We haven’t cut it yet,’ says Saltzman. ‘We’ll do that after Sundance.’